Ask A Librarian

The mother of invention and taste

Posted by Angela Spatafore.
May 31st, 2021

Blog post by Christina White, undergraduate researcher at WVU

This is the seventh post in White’s series on race, justice, and social change through cookbooksfeaturing the following books from the Ebersole collection: Mammy Pleasant’s Cookbook, A Date with a Dish, A Good Heart and a Light Hand, and The Jemima Code.

A Date with a Dish slices through fallacies and vegetables alike. Freda de Knight writes like she’s chatting on the phone with a girlfriend, whisking readers away on interviews with America’s Black chefs. As I’ve said in earlier posts, the angle found within a cookbook is unfiltered and raw in comparison to accounts written by dominant groups, or those unaffected by Black America’s challenges.

Book cover A Date with a Dish by Freda de Knight

Struggle isn’t an ingredient, but a tangible influence on the composition of a recipe. Freda emphasized “food that stretches” for times of financial hardship. All-in-one recipes like “Mama Scott’s Inexpensive Dinner” document ways that people adapted and problem-solved.

“When sugar was scarce and pennies low, maple syrup and even molasses made delightful eating, added to apples which were topped with a crunchy, flaky crust.”

How to “budget slash” and reuse ham:

Excerpt about ham hocks reads, "Don't shun ham hocks as poor folks' food..."cause they ain't!" However they can do a terrific job in budget slashing. They can be used in a variety of ways; boiled and seasoned, or, after boiling, the meat can be cut from the bone, ground, and made into croquettes or hash, or cut up for creamed ham or ham salad. 
The stock from boiled ham hocks is good for soups and gravies too. Don't throw out the juice! Store it in the refrigerator for later use."

Freda agreed with the saying, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” She understood the needs of her readers and published a tool to help them save money. What a boss!

Resources:

Cookbook image: Between the Covers Rare Books, Inc.

I’ll date you a dish of _____

Posted by Angela Spatafore.
May 17th, 2021

Blog post by Christina White, undergraduate researcher at WVU

This is the sixth post in White’s series on race, justice, and social change through cookbooksfeaturing the following books from the Ebersole collection: Mammy Pleasant’s Cookbook, A Date with a Dish, A Good Heart and a Light Hand, and The Jemima Code.

Each recipe is a date! The author, Freda de Knight, introduces recipes with tidbits of history or personal advice. In the modern cookbook world, I get overwhelmed quickly. Each online recipe begins with paragraphs of extra tips on how exactly to roast this or marinate that, followed by bulleted lists of ingredients and instructions. A Date with a Dish slows down and eases you into the upcoming recipe, much like a girlfriend would sit me down to describe the guy she was setting me up with for a blind date.

A snippet of the preamble for “Smithfield Ham:”

The preamble reads, "So, as we date this dish, we ask who could be more competent to cook this delicacy, whether peanut cured or hickory smoked, than the Negroes who helped raise the hog, kill, and cure it?
The recipes for Smithfield ham date back to when "mammies" wore bandanas and took charge of the kitchen on festive occasions...tiny thin slices of ham for appetizers, or a thick, juicy slice for breakfast, or the whole ham garnished with all sorts of goodies for the main dish. And here are two of the finest ways to prepare this most wonderful ham, and both excellent."

Freda respects her contributors, radiating pride for Black chefs like Jimmy Daniels:

Excerpt reads, "Jimmy Daniels' Kedgeree
Here is a recipe from Jimmy Daniels, a young man who, before the last war, was proprietor of one of New York's finest Negro restaurants. The food and service were superb and definitely a "must" for all New Yorkers and visitors.
Jimmy, who has traveled all over America and Europe, knows and loves food. He definitely belongs in the gourmet class. Among his favorite recipes is "Kedgeree." an East Indian dish which is his pride and joy. It is simple, tasty and inexpensive."

See what I mean?

Jimmie Daniels Restaurant front

More than a list of ingredients, the reader hears about Black Americans that invented the dish, festivities when it is served, and a vivid depiction of how to simmer, chop, or prepare for the main event.

Note that each “date” ends with an underlying message: Black cooks are diverse, skilled, and worthy of society’s praise and recognition.

Resources:

Image of Jimmie Daniels Restaurant:  Harlem World Magazine

Freda de Knight, “A Date With a Dish: A Cook Book of American Negro Recipes,” 1948.  

Not just fried chicken.

Posted by Angela Spatafore.
May 3rd, 2021

Blog post by Christina White, undergraduate researcher at WVU

This is the fifth post in White’s series on race, justice, and social change through cookbooksfeaturing the following books from the Ebersole collection: Mammy Pleasant’s Cookbook, A Date with a Dish, A Good Heart and a Light Hand, and The Jemima Code.

“It is a fallacy, long disproved, that Negro cooks, chefs, caterers and housewives can adapt themselves only to the standard Southern dishes, such as fried chicken, greens, corn pone, hot breads, and so forth.” The preface was probably quite inflammatory to prejudiced whites that came across it. To get a sense of the author’s courage, glance over the first page here:

A copy of the Preface page of A Date with a Dish. The preface reads, "There has long been a need for a non-regional cook book that would contain recipes, menus, and cooking hints from and by Negroes all over America. I have attempted in these pages to present, along with my own contributions, as complete a collection as can be found anywhere in the land. Recipes new and fresh in the modern manner...recipes ages old brought back to life...original, traditional, and exciting.
It is a fallacy, long disproved, the Negro cooks, chefs, caterers and housewives can adapt themselves only to the standard Southern dishes, such as fried chicken, greens, corn pone, hot breads, and so forth. Like other Americans living in various sections of the country they have naturally shown a desire to branch out in all directions and become versatile in the preparation of any dish, whether it be Spanish in origin, Italian, French, Balinese, or East Indian.
Years ago, and even today, some of our greatest culinary artists were unable to read or write. But their ingenuity, mother wit and good common sense made them masters in their profession without the aid of measuring spoons."

The author, Freda de Knight, in her book, A Date With a Dish: A Cook Book of American Negro Recipes, acknowledges stereotypes. She knows that Black individuals had to improvise, cooking without measurement or modern equipment. How could they formally publish cookbooks when they couldn’t read or write?

Hannah Giorgis in Bon Appetit describes how Freda’s cookbook transformed the future of Black cooks. She recognized that “cultural archiving and culinary research are both pursuits for which few black people have received compensation.” It’s a great read for home chefs, history buffs, or anyone interested in how one woman stood for justice.

*It’s nearly impossible to find a print copy of Freda de Knight’s book, as numerous Amazon and Google searches proved. However, WVU students and staff can visit the Ebersole Collection on the 6th floor of the library to read our copy for free! Make an appointment. (They’re open during the COVID-19 pandemic by appointment.)

**I also found this online version of A Date with a Dish digitized by Cornell University.

Shakespeare’s Birthday! Celebrating with the Flowers of Shakespeare’s Plays

Posted by Angela Spatafore.
April 23rd, 2021

Blog post by Stewart Plein, Associate Curator for WV Books & Printed Resources & Rare Book Librarian

Shakespeare loved flowers and it is well known that he used them in his plays.  Flowers conveyed meaning and symbolism in Shakespeare’s day.  Each mention of a flower or tree would provide a clue to the readers of his plays.  Let’s take a look at some of the flowers and plays where they are mentioned.  I’m sure Shakespeare would be happy to celebrate his birthday with a bouquet of flowers!

All of the flower portraits you see here come from a set of books in the Rare Books collection, William Woodville’s Medical Botany.  Published in 1832 in five volumes, each with beautiful images of flowers and other plants illustrated with hand colored plates. 

‘What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.’

Romeo and Juliet

Botanical illustration of a rose

Are our carnations and streak’d gillyvors,
Which some call nature’s bastards: of that kind
Our rustic garden’s barren; and I care not
To get slips of them.’

The Winter’s Tale

Botanical illustration of a carnation

 ‘The flower-de-luce being one! O, these I lack,
To make you garlands of, and my sweet friend,
To strew him o’er and o’er!’

The Winter’s Tale

Botanical illustration of an iris

‘Not poppy, nor mandragora,
Nor all the drowsy syrups of the world,
Shall ever medicine thee to that sweet sleep
Which thou owedst yesterday.’

Othello

Botanical illustration of a poppy

Happy Birthday Shakespeare!

If you’d like to see Shakespeare’s works or Woodville’s Medical Botany, contact me, Stewart Plein, to schedule a visit to the Rare Book Room. 

Resources:

Carnation image

Rose image

Iris image

Poppy image

Quotes

The woman behind one of West Virginia’s fine bakeries.

Posted by Angela Spatafore.
April 5th, 2021

Blog post by Christina White, undergraduate researcher at WVU

This is the fourth post in White’s series on race, justice, and social change through cookbooksfeaturing the following books from the Ebersole collection: Mammy Pleasant’s Cookbook, A Date with a Dish, A Good Heart and a Light Hand, and The Jemima Code.

Freda de Knight authored the next featured cookbook, A Date with a Dish, but it would be better described as a midnight phone conversation with a friend who knows more than you.

She published this guide in 1948, but her culinary journey began at age 5 when she, like many girls at the time, helped her mother pack lunch for her siblings and prepare family meals.

A page from the guide includes a photo of Freda de Knight and the following biographical information, "This extremely charming, brown-skinned little woman who has written A DATE WITH A DISH brings a wealth of experience as well as a natural bent to her subject. 
"By the time I was five years of age," Freda de Knight relates, "I was able to bake my first loaf of bread, make biscuits, and garnish plates. Instead of cutting out paper dolls and playing house, I was cutting out recipes and playing cook."
After completing her early education in a convent at Salem, N. D., she took several courses at different colleges, majoring in home economics. She has acted as teacher and counsellor in all phases of the culinary arts in the New York schools. During the past twenty years she has collected thousands of recipes from Negro sources, and has used these recipes time and time again for gourmets and people who just love good food. 
She is the Cooking Editor of EBONY, popular Negro national magazine, in which her monthly column, A DATE WITH A DISH, is read by hundreds of thousands."

Freda didn’t hide from challenges facing Black cooks. This was the first cookbook I read that outright rejected the status quo, calling for “a non-regional cook book that would contain recipes, menus, and cooking hints from and by Negros all over America.” Here, there are hundreds of those recipes with anecdotes from the cooks themselves. I have no choice other than sharing one recipe by a West Virginia resident and baker, Ruth Jackson!

Text excerpt reads, "Ruth Jackson. As a girl, Ruth Jackson started her career as a "top notcher" in the Cooks and Bakers Class. Later she married a minister and became one of the pillars of her community when it came to good foods. All this helped toward her Epicurean education and for years she's been holding down first-class positions in her field. 
During her early years of cooking she studied and perfected the art of making pastries and candies. At one time she had charge of one of West Virginia's better bakeries. Everything that passed through her trained hands was baked to perfection, and her wedding cakes and petits fours were "picture-perfect," as if they had come out of the finest French bakeries."

I tried to find more information about Ruth, like her bakery’s name, city of residence, or even a photo. I had no success, although a more intensive search might work out. Either way, her memory lives on in A Date with a Dish.

When I think of West Virginia in the 1940’s, I never thought I’d hear about it from the perspective of a Black, female baker. It is truly awesome that Freda takes a moment to celebrate other women of color, whose recipes and ideas were generally shut off from popular cookbooks or publications. Wouldn’t it be great if they read about female entrepreneurs like Ruth Jackson in West Virginia history classes? The recipe is there, tucked away on a shelf in the West Virginia & Regional History Center. If you take away anything from this blog, don’t be afraid to fill a void in a story you care about.

I’ll have the molded cucumbers and meat stock rutabaga, please

Posted by Jane Metters LaBarbara.
March 22nd, 2021

Blog post by Christina White, undergraduate researcher at WVU

This is the third post in White’s series on race, justice, and social change through cookbooksfeaturing the following books from the Ebersole collection: Mammy Pleasant’s Cookbook, A Date with a Dish, A Good Heart and a Light Hand, and The Jemima Code.

It’s a tall order, de-mystifying the history of a group that was, and still is, slighted by a clear lack of representation. Delving into the Ebersole Collection of cookbooks, I unlocked a treasure chest of personal records on the issue of race. Now, I want to shine the limelight upon the recipes themselves. Let their components and technique do the speaking for women like Mary Ellen Pleasant and their prowess in the culinary arts. Despite the trope that Black women had “natural cooking talent”, Mary’s recipes show an impressive level of education and technical skill in the culinary arts.

First, compare the meals Mary provided her Black wait staff and elite guests at the ex-governor of California’s dinner parties. She catered for Mr. Latham, the ex-governor and US Senator, with an international buffet that boasted boiled pigs feet and veal knuckle. She meticulously set tables with gold dinnerware. Apparently, the punch bowl had five types of wine mixed in — not your typical frat party.

Sketch showing people in fancy dress at Milton Latham's house
A drawing of one of the dinner parties that Mary would cater for Governor Latham.

Here’s a bit of her recipe for molded cucumbers, which Mary served to guests at New Year’s Supper:

“Slice cucumbers and put into salted water… Put into the water 1 blade of mace, 1 teaspoon of peppercorns and ½ bay leaf… Put 6 tablespoonsful of gelatin in 1 cupful of water to dissolve…  Add 1 cup of tarragon vinegar and several drops of green coloring… When the gelatine has set, drain the cucumbers, arrange in a layer in mold, pour the rest of the gelatine into the mold and let jell until firm…”

Whoo! I’d botch up at slicing the cucumbers. Every item sounds like something you’d learn at a prestigious school of culinary arts in Paris. Yet Mary, enslaved since birth, had no such education. She learned these techniques as a young girl and expanded her repertoire independently. She was fortunate to have her creations documented in this cookbook, as most Black women of her time didn’t receive recognition for their tremendous and diverse culinary skills.

This is evidence that Black women trained and practiced cooking in a formal way, even if it didn’t result in a formal certificate. There was, and remains, a stereotype that Black women are born with an intrinsic, homely knowledge of cooking, and that they exclusively whip up Southern comfort foods like fried chicken and gravy.

Jumping back to the food she’d serve to her Black staff members, here is a recipe for “Cheap John Rutabaga:”

Recipe for "Cheap John Rutabaga"

This is no walk in the park, either. The ingredients for Mr. Latham’s guests at their lavish New Year’s Supper party were expensive and imported, but the technique required to make the perfect rutabaga is formidable. When I first read the new section of recipes for Mary’s staff, I was troubled by the “lesser” quality of food. The recipes tell a different tale, one of resourcefulness and creativity. The staff section includes sour-sweet bites that require a double boiler to get just right and an ingredient I’ve never heard of: caraway seeds. The ingredients used for Mr. Latham and Mary’s staff may differ, but the thoughtfulness and technical merit are consistent across every page.

What the Thomas Jefferson Knowledge Institute has to add about Mary Ellen Pleasant can be found here.

Mammy Pleasant: An Agent of the Underground Railroad, Riverboat Chef, and West Virginia Abolitionist

Posted by Jane Metters LaBarbara.
March 8th, 2021

Blog post by Christina White, undergraduate researcher at WVU

This is the second post in White’s series on race, justice, and social change through cookbooks, featuring the following books from the Ebersole collection: Mammy Pleasant’s Cookbook, A Date with a Dish, A Good Heart and a Light Hand, and The Jemima Code.

W.E.B. Du Bois compared Mary Ellen Pleasant to Harriet Tubman. He said, “Here was a colored woman who became one of the shrewdest business minds of the State.”

From “plantation lamb” to “smoked picnic tongue,” Mary Ellen Pleasant cooked it all and saw it all on her careful rise to culinary stardom in Victorian America. She was born into slavery on a Georgia plantation. Her training in the culinary arts began early in childhood, and once she was freed, she combined cooking and business skills to climb the ranks in gold-rush San Francisco and on a river boat owned by wealthy financiers. She used her connections with powerful figures to find jobs for colored people and led an effort to desegregate San Francisco’s streetcars, which established a legal precedent in the California Supreme Court for future civil rights suits (Thomas Jefferson Knowledge Institute). I’m left thinking, Where was this series of events in my American History class?

Taking her story closer to home, Mary Ellen was a leading figure in John Brown’s uprising at Harper’s Ferry. She financed his mission by donating $30,000, nearly $1 million in current money. When John Brown was hung in 1859 for treason, officials found a note in his pocket from an unknown, assumed-to-be-male source. It expressed complete support for the raid. That note was written by Mary Ellen Pleasant, self-made millionaire and West Virginia hero.

Portrait of Mary Ellen Pleasant, seated

Mary Ellen’s arduous journey is written between the lines of kitchen guidance, local recipes, and lists of common ingredients like nutmeg and bread crumbs. You get a sense of life’s everyday essence in the words of a chef to a novice reader. It’s conversational, light, yet studded with evidence of Mary Ellen’s home and career at the time. This timeline of food showcases her major steps, characteristic recipes, and social position throughout her life.

She’s a feminist leader whose name belongs beside modern icons like Simone de Beauvoir, Coretta Scott King, or Malala Yousafzai. I read about her campaign for justice in the pages surrounding quaint recipes for stews and cakes. No other book I’ve read detailed the process of stewing turtle meat with sherry wine or whipping cream with a rotary beater.

Like many women of color in the United States, Mary Ellen was artistically and academically restricted. She was blocked from etching her success, struggle, and feelings in popular documents. We must widen the reading lens of history, piecing together hidden accounts from secondary sources like cookbooks. Stories like Mary’s, a brilliant entrepreneur, self-made millionaire, and important abolitionist, cannot remain shrouded by discrimination.

When you step back and absorb Mary’s well-rounded recipes, you can almost taste her march toward self-empowerment and social change. As we move through this blog, let’s celebrate the women who built modern food systems and simultaneously campaigned for freedom.

“I’d rather be a corpse than a coward.” -Mary Ellen Pleasant

Resources:

Mary Ellen Pleasant’s Timeline of Major Events: https://timelines.gitkraken.com/timeline/8afdcc6908984b1887c2dce8884f2b1d?range=1830-01-01_1879-08-08
(Dates are approximate, as they were not listed explicitly in the cookbook. Scroll over blue boxes to read more.)

Image of Mary Ellen Pleasant:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Ellen_Pleasant

Source of quotes and more information about Mary Ellen Pleasant from the New York Times:
https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/obituaries/mary-ellen-pleasant-overlooked.html

An Undergraduate’s Take on Race, Justice, and Social Change Through Cookbooks

Posted by Jane Metters LaBarbara.
February 22nd, 2021

Blog post by Christina White, undergraduate researcher at WVU

This series of blog posts will feature the following books: Mammy Pleasant’s Cookbook, A Date with a Dish, A Good Heart and a Light Hand, and The Jemima Code

Collage of cookbook covers
Emphasis on race, gender, socioeconomic status, and themes of social justice

Note: The cookbooks in this series feature revolutionary and talented women of their times. Reading their stories in the West Virginia & Regional History Center, I chose to refer to the authors by their first names. Their casual tones conveyed a desire to connect with the reader, and being one of those readers, I wanted to uphold that connection while maintaining the highest respect for the work they created.

I found a place on campus I never knew existed. The West Virginia & Regional History Center houses doorways into the past, into the day-to-day struggles, relationships, and moments of sweet relief. I’m sifting through the realities of women, Black Americans, and other marginalized groups to elucidate forces that affected their lives. These forces, far from obsolete, persist into today’s social landscape, whether it is in private conversations at the Mountainlair or national media coverage.

Donated by the late Lucinda Ebersole, an acclaimed writer and cookbook collector, hundreds of cookbooks await analysis on the sixth floor of the Downtown Library. I started with Mammy Pleasant’s Cookbook, which captures the travels and fierce entrepreneurship of Mary Ellen Pleasant.

Double doors with sign above that reads "Rare Book Room"
The Rare Book Room at the West Virginia & Regional History Center.

I realized that recipes cast a new light on history with an intimate truthfulness. Standard high-school history books don’t reveal the ins and outs of stewing a turtle, running a renowned kitchen on a senator’s riverboat, or feeding enslaved people at secret boarding houses of the Underground Railroad. The language around recipes, be it an author’s note or long introduction, tells a story about a time period. How are specific groups of people described? Mammy Pleasant’s Cookbook uses “Negro,” while later books opt for “African American” or “Black.” Who knew a timeline of societal awakenings and changes in norms is etched between the dinner and dessert section of a cookbook?

As I flipped the page of a hundred-year-old cookbook, a plume of dust shot into the air. I caught a whiff of an unfamiliar scent that reminded me of my grandmother’s stack of outdated newspapers, musty yet potent. I felt like a foreigner in an unexplored country, getting to know the smells and rituals of a group whose history was scrubbed and sanitized by dominant groups.

For example, the “mammy” stereotype — a jolly, rotund Black woman who cares for everyone and whips up a southern feast — seemed awful but extinct in today’s world. However, it was only three months ago that the international brand Quaker Oats removed a notorious mammy stereotype from their most famous product line, Aunt Jemima syrup and pancake mix.

Check out this TikTok on “How to Make a Non Racist Breakfast.” The creator spells out how a pancake icon propagated racism: https://twitter.com/singkirbysing/status/1273053553876074496

The content of these frayed cookbooks is so pertinent to the current moment. Their lessons on racial identity and inclusion matter in policy decisions, university trainings, and dorm-room discussions among friends.

My goal in these blogs is to share stories from sources as raw, as delicious, and as unfiltered as personal recipes. I don’t mind if opinions are unsettled or comfortability is shaken. I’ll also let you in on experiences that I’ll likely never witness, like skinning an opossum or preparing fruit punch for a hundred people at a church social.

At some points, I found myself agitated over a cookbook. I texted friends and annoyed my family about what I read, mostly injustices against the authors and their communities. Civil rights, intercultural blending, mental health, women’s suffrage, gender issues, slavery, single parenthood, poverty, environmentalism, and more fills the pages of the Ebersole Collection. This blog would be lucky to dust off just one of those topics!

I invite you to accompany me into the daily lives of skilled chefs who objected in the most cunning, illusive way. Their judgements and hopes are woven into the blank spaces between recipes for roast duck and spice cake.

I’m excited to show you what I uncovered after hours in the West Virginia & Regional History Center, carefully leafing through these antique cookbooks on a special book pillow.

I’m a senior pursuing a double major in Biology and International Studies and intern at the WVU Center for Resilient Communities. Welcome to my excursion into the Ebersole Collection!

Display of cookbooks featuring Black women
An exhibit of cookbooks written by Black women, an underrepresented group in culinary publications. This case and others can be viewed at the West Virginia & Regional History Center.

*I will capitalize the term “Black” in agreement with the New York Times’ 2020 decision to respect a shared cultural identity. Read more about their decision here.

Members of the WVU community can make an appointment to browse and read books from the Ebersole Collection by visiting: https://wvulib.wufoo.com/forms/modzhm01sagr2x/

A warm thank you to our dedicated Rare Book Librarian, Stewart Plein, and our Reference Supervisor, Jessica Eichlin, for empowering me during this process. Without their work, organizing the hundreds of books and spreading the word about their content would not happen.

More about the Ebersole Collection: https://news.lib.wvu.edu/2018/12/05/the-importance-of-a-good-cookbook/

Written by Christina White
Biology and International Studies
cdw0030@mix.wvu.edu

*photos taken by Christina White

A Woman’s Book: How to Know the Ferns, A Guide to the Names, Haunts, and Habits of Our Common Ferns, by Frances Theodora Parsons

Posted by Jane Metters LaBarbara.
January 4th, 2021

Blog post by Stewart Plein, Associate Curator for WV Books & Printed Resources & Rare Book Librarian

In 1899, Clara W. Greglee or perhaps Griglee, received this book, How to Know the Ferns, as a Christmas gift from her mother.  Although there is little that we know about Clara, including the correct spelling of her surname, we do know that she was a passionate amateur botanist.  We know, because her book is stuffed with the ferns she picked, pressed between the pages, and identified in her book.

Pencil handwriting, "Clara W. Greglee, from mother, Christmas 1899"
Cover of book, How to Know the Ferns
Interior of book, showing text and sketches of ferns, and a pressed fern

Above, we can see that Clara pressed a fern between the pages describing the Narrow Leaved Spleenwort.  However, from her pressing, one can see that this particular example is not the Narrow Leaved Spleenwort, but another type of fern altogether.  Perhaps, on this day, Clara picked and pressed as she walked, planning to identify the ferns she gathered at a later time. 

Book page describing Christmas Fern

Clara also made notes in the margins of the guide book, such as the note in the photo above.  According to this brief notation, we know that Clara identified one of the most common ferns, the Christmas fern, while in Denmark, Maine, in June 1900.  This common fern grows all over the eastern seaboard, from New Brunswick all the way to Florida.

Page of handwritten notes

Ferns weren’t the only thing Clara hoped to identify.  Pages of notes can also be found inside her book, slipped inside the front cover.  On September 20th, 1901, Clara was identifying plants near Kennebunk, Maine.  The first entry, perhaps a mushroom, reads “reddish brown – old – coarse sponge like gils.”

Clara was given this book in the first year of publication, 1899, and by observing the traces she left behind, we know that she was still using it to identify plants in 1901.  But Clara wasn’t the only woman to be involved with this book.  Three other women made this book possible: the author, Frances Theodora Parsons, the illustrator, Marion Satterlee, and the book cover designer, Margaret Armstrong.  All three women were botanists.  

Portrait of Frances Theodora Parsons in hat

The author, Frances Theodora Parsons, also wrote under her married name, Mrs. William Starr Dana. Following her husband’s death in 1890 during a flu epidemic, Mrs. Dana sought solace in nature.  She took long walks with her friend Marion Satterlee, an artist.  Together, Marion and Frances began identifying wildflowers.  These long nature walks led to her first book, How to Know the Wildflowers in 1893.  She would go on to publish two more nature guides, According to Season, 1894, and Plants and Their Children, 1896. 

It was not until after Frances married James Russell Parsons, a politician and diplomat, that she wrote this book, How to Know the Ferns, which she considered a sequel to her first book, How to Know the Wildflowers.

Her friend, and companion for the many long woodland walks together, Marion Satterlee, pictured below, would illustrate all of Mrs. Parsons’ books.  She too, was a botanist and her black and white line illustrations beautifully and accurately depict the ferns they encountered. 

Portrait of a Marion Satterlee

A second artist, Alice Josephine Smith, also drew some of the fern illustrations.  Unfortunately, no information could be found about her work or life.

The fourth woman to be involved with the making of this book was Margaret Armstrong, another artist/botanist who would go on to author and illustrate her own guide to western wildflowers, a guide that did not exist until she tackled it. 

Armstrong, pictured below, was a well-known book cover designer.  She created the designs that would be stamped in colored inks and real gold to make attractive book covers that would draw customers and increase sales.  She chose to frame the titles surrounded by ferns, and she placed ferns across the cover stamped in green, as if they were growing naturally in the wild.  She often signed her designs with a monogram, her initials MA, which can be found near the title at the upper right of the book. 

Cover of How to Know Ferns, showing green fern pattern and artist's initials
Portrait of Margaret Armstrong in flowered hat

Taken all together, this is a book by women for women.  Botany and plant identification were popular pursuits in the late 19th and early 20th century.  It was a hobby women could enjoy, as seen here in this photo, pictured below, from the book.  Seeing this photograph, we can picture Clara carrying her book with her into the woods, stopping to pick a fern and press it between the pages. We can see Frances and Marion, two friends who found companionship and the inspiration to create a book that would be enjoyed by others, and we can see Margaret Armstrong, another artist who could use her skills to make the book attractive enough to appeal to a mother as a Christmas gift for her daughter. 

The rare book room in the West Virginia and Regional History Center has books by Mrs. Parsons, books illustrated by Marion Satterlee, nature guides, and many books with covers designed by Margaret Armstrong.

Woman looking at a bush

Resources:

Moving Rare Book Instruction Online: Filming a 15th Century Medieval Choir Book

Posted by Jane Metters LaBarbara.
November 30th, 2020

Blog post by Stewart Plein, Associate Curator for WV Books & Printed Resources & Rare Book Librarian

I think we can all agree that the pandemic has brought a number of changes to our daily routines.  We’ve had to rethink everything in our lives, from the most basic and necessary, like simply going to the grocery store, to how we handle work related tasks, like instruction.  In order to protect our students and faculty, WVU moved much of its fall semester instruction online.  That included instruction for rare books too.     

Back in the spring, when life during the pandemic began to be referred to as the “new normal,” it seemed clear that the fall semester wouldn’t be returning to the pre-Covid normal we had all hoped for.  Taking this into consideration, the big question uppermost on my mind was how to handle rare book instruction?  It was going to take some planning! 

At that time, I wasn’t even sure that professors would want to add rare book instruction to their courses so I was delighted when I received several requests from faculty to develop sessions for their students virtually.  The only problem?  I’d never taught online before!  A lot of time was put into researching best practices and approaches, attempting to learn how to use Zoom, something that was totally new to me, the mechanics of delivering rare book instruction virtually, and basically, how I would manage to accomplish this and provide meaningful instruction that students would find interesting and educational.

Table full of books on display
Rare Book instruction before the pandemic.  Above, the table in the rare book room is set up in advance for a class.  Below, class is in session.  In this photo we are examining a volume from the Dayton Shakespeare collection.
Instructor showing a large book to students

Before the pandemic, scheduling and developing classroom content was determined in a few, easy steps.  Following a faculty member’s request, we’d meet, via email or in person, to discuss content, consider texts, and look over the syllabus.  Often, I met faculty in the rare book room, especially those who were using rare books in their class for the first time.  During our meeting we would view the space to see if it was suitable for their needs, select books that would be appropriate, and make final decisions about content.  Then we’d be all set to go!  While some of the same procedures could be followed for virtual instruction via email or in a Zoom meeting, simply pulling the books off the shelf and creating a display for students to examine, as well as holding in person classes, like the one shown above, was no longer an option.

The bottom line – to make rare books available virtually it was going to take a village and a lot of time!  Moving instruction online would require scanning fragile primary resources in order for students to be able to see them virtually. I had received several requests for students to view a 15th century monastic choir book, for both synchronous and asynchronous instruction.  Synchronous instruction is defined as a live class, in person or virtual, with both students and faculty/instructors in attendance at the same time.  Asynchronous instruction can be defined as instructional materials prepared in advance for students to view at their convenience.  The task before us was to make the choir book suitable to both forms of instruction, so that’s what I decided to tackle first.

Here’s how we did it:

First, I reached out to colleagues in the West Virginia and Regional History Center, Jessica Eichlin, our reference supervisor who has a real talent when it comes to scanning and using a camera, and Lemley Mullett, our photographs manager, who has experience creating some of the videos you see used in our exhibitions.  The three of us met to talk about our approach, and then we devised a plan.

The book in question is a missal, or gradual; which is a collection of music for the service of mass covering the Catholic church year.  Although the volume is not dated, there are plenty of clues, such as the binding itself and the sewing structure that holds it together, two elements that vary over time that led us to approximate the date to around 1450.  The gradual is very large.  It takes two people, myself and someone else, to move it.  It is a medieval manuscript, made before Gutenberg invented the printing press, and therefore, it was entirely handmade at the Dominican monastery in Seville, Spain where it was used. 

Unlike books you see today, the manuscript was made without the aid of all the modern technological advances in machinery and manufacturing that are used to produce books today.  For this book, the boards were cut from an oak tree.  Plants were grown, harvested, dried, and then their fibers were braided and used to bind the book. The pages, called leaves at this time, are made from vellum., also known as parchment, which is made from calf skin. The text, hand written by scribes, is Latin, not Spanish, as one might assume since it was made at a Spanish monastery.  The musical notes are square, which is indicative of chant.  As can be imagined, we wanted to take great care with this book.

Pages of a book with musical notation and Latin text

A two-page spread of the vellum pages showing the Latin text and musical notations for Chant, a droning, monotone type of choral singing.

We decided filming the book would be the best approach.  We would position the book on appropriate supports and film each page as it was being turned.

Open book resting on a pillow beneath a tripod

The choir book is positioned carefully on a pillow designed to support rare books.  It sits on the table in the rare book room.  You can see the tripod for the camera positioned on top of the table above it.  Our camera pro, Jessica Eichlin, is on the right.

Woman operating camera on tripod to photograph a book

As you can see, arranging the camera to film the gradual took a bit of maneuvering!  Jessica is standing on top of the table in her socks, positioning the camera to film the book.

Woman operating camera on tripod to photograph a book as another woman looks on

Lemley Mullett positions the light boxes to get the best angle, Jessica handles the camera.  One leg of the tripod required a higher position to get the camera at the appropriate height.  I can assure you that no rare books were used or harmed in this process!

Woman operating camera on tripod to photograph a book as another woman turns pages

Lemley gets in position.  In the first phase of the film, Lemley will turn each page of the book.  Note, she is not wearing gloves.  Freshly washed, clean hands are the best approach when turning fragile pages.  Gloves only get in the way and make turning pages more difficult.

Woman turning the pages of a large book

The filming begins!  Lemley starts turning the pages while Jessica handles the filming process.

Phase one is now complete!  Click here to view the first phase of the video with Lemley turning the medieval pages.  There is no audio at this point. The video is called Turning Leaves: A Look at a 15th Century Choir Book:  https://youtu.be/U-u8WCg__aM 

In a live class, I can embed this link in a PowerPoint, or click on the link itself, and share my screen virtually in a Zoom class session so that all the students can see it as I’m showing it to them.  While the video is in play, I can then push the pause button and take a few moments to discuss specific details.  Then I can push play and we’re on to the next page. 

Now it’s time for phase two!  The final classroom instruction that will be layered over the video has two parts.  First, my task is to use this video as the basis for my instruction.  The plan is to record this version as a Zoom session that will be available for asynchronous course instruction.  I will pause at points during the video to discuss details as they arise.  Second, I’ll use a PowerPoint presentation to zoom in on specific details and discuss them for student viewing.

There were a few stops and starts along the way.  If I misspoke, or accidentally hit the wrong button, and I assure you I did, I had to start over.  Narrating the video with educational instruction took a few times for me to get it right in order to develop a level of comfort during recording as well as making certain I had covered all the points I wanted to say.  In the end, after a few false starts, I was pleased with the result, even though I turned a slide or two too soon towards the end!

You may view the final video with my instruction here: https://youtu.be/Y9-c6ceNgjw.  This video is called Gradual: A Look at a 15th Century Choir Book

In closing, during a time when accessibility is limited due to the pandemic, it’s important to continue our mission to make our primary resources available to our students.  Now you have the opportunity to see behind the scenes as we create instruction in a way that makes our collections available in these challenging times.  If you share these videos with your group, please let me know!  I’d love to hear how you used them!

Got questions?  I’m available! 

From the Rare Book Room: Familiar Lectures on Botany, by Mrs. Almira Hart Lincoln Phelps

Posted by Jane Metters LaBarbara.
September 21st, 2020

Blog post by Stewart Plein, Associate Curator for WV Books & Printed Resources & Rare Book Librarian

A woman of many talents, Almira Hart Lincoln Phelps, (July 15, 1793 – July 15, 1884) was passionately engaged in the education of young women at a time when the ideal was marriage and children.  Over the years she wrote many textbooks, but this volume, Familiar Lectures on Botany, from the West Virginia and Regional History Center rare book room, is perhaps her most popular and enduring. 

Portrait of Almira Lincoln Phelps

Familiar Lectures on Botany was her first textbook.  Designed to teach young women natural history and the science of botany, the book went through nearly 40 editions with revisions made by her daughters.

The Rare Book Room copy is the fifth edition, revised and enlarged, and it goes by the formidable title, Familiar Lectures on Botany; Practical, Elementary and Physiological, with an Appendix, containing the descriptions of the Plants of the United States and Exotics, etc. For the Use of Seminaries and Private Students. It was published in Hartford by F.J. Huntington, 1836. 

While many believe that the first edition of a text is the most important as well as the most valuable, that is not necessarily the case. The fifth edition, revised and enlarged with “many additional engravings.”  would be of greater interest due to the extra illustrations and their accompanying text. 

"Familiar Lectures on Botany" title page

Born in Connecticut, Almira Hart came from a large family, the youngest of 17 children.  Her parents strongly believed in education for young women.  One of her older sisters, Emma Willard, pictured below, was a well-known educator, who taught herself geometry as a young girl.  The Emma Willard School she founded in Troy, New York is still educating young women today.  It was Emma who would teach the intellectually inquisitive and capable Almira. 

Portrait of Emma Willard

At that time, there were few schools dedicated to educating young women.  In addition, academic institutions taught boys and girls separately at schools that were privately owned, not state supported.  These schools were frequently operated under personal ownership, mostly by the educators themselves, such as Emma Willard’s School for Young Women.    

Illustration for the description of the calyx, showing interior and exterior view of flower
Illustration for the description of the calyx. 

Another New Englander, the poet Emily Dickinson, was a student of botany at the Amherst Academy in her home town of Amherst, Massachusetts.  She would often roam the woods, gathering plants, bringing them home to press, then pasting them onto pages, creating a personal herbarium that documented the world around her. 

Dickinson’s botany textbook was Phelps’s Familiar Lectures on Botany. As her poetry was often filled with flowers, it is no surprise that her own copy of Phelps’s textbook holds a pressed flower between its pages, placed there by Dickinson herself.

Book pages with a pressed flower on one page
Emily Dickinson’s own copy of Mrs. Phelps’s Familiar Lectures on Botany, published in 1838, with a flowering plant she pressed between its pages, still retaining some faint vestiges of color. 

The original owner of the rare book room’s copy of Familiar Lectures on Botany, was Ellen Beirne, of Belmont.  Though we don’t know which state she lived in, there are three towns named Belmont in New England, we do know that she was probably the first person to own this book.  Published in 1836, the date she wrote beneath her signature, December 11, 1837, hints that she acquired it shortly after publication. 

Page with a WVU Library stamp, signature, and date

In this year, 2020, as we mark the centenary anniversary of women’s right to vote and celebrate the suffragists that made it possible, it is interesting to note that Phelps, as a passionate advocate for the education of women, was fervently against women’s suffrage.  Though she believed that women should be educated in the event that they would have to work outside the home, she spoke out against suffrage and wrote articles against it. 

The next time you take a walk and find your eye attracted to a beautiful wildflower along the way, think of Mrs. Almira Hart Lincoln Phelps and her Familiar Lectures on Botany, a book that educated an aspiring poet as well as many other young women who may not have had the opportunity to learn botany without her. 

Resources:

Learning to Read a Book: An Account of a Rare Book Room Assistantship

Posted by Jane Metters LaBarbara.
August 3rd, 2020

Blog post by Jessica Kambara, LTAII/Rare Book Room assistant, WVRHC.

Woman between rows of bookshelves, standing on stool

During my sophomore year of college, I attended a class led by the curator of WVU’s rare book room, Stewart Plein, on Shakespeare’s Folios. Upon entering the rare book room, I thought I’d like to work there. The Rare Book room had a clean yet cozy atmosphere, and exuded an aura of history and prestige. Halfway through the class, after getting to leaf through the large folio pages of a book hundreds of years old, I was sure I wanted to work there. By the end, I had gotten a job. All it took was asking if there were any work opportunities available, and Stewart set me up with a capstone project and took me under her wing as her assistant.

The first position I ever took in the Rare Book room was effectively that of an intern; however, I was working for course credit and so had to treat it like a capstone project. My objectives were to educate myself on Rare Book room handling and terminology; to compile a portfolio of my inventory work; to create a display; and to present what I had learned. The work itself was quite straightforward. I had to sort through boxes of donated books, create an inventory, and do additional research to determine the historical and monetary value of the book. Stewart was there to guide me through the process, and often steered me if I was stumped. My most important task was to determine the value of a book—essentially data analysis.

Book value is determined by a number of factors: condition, rarity, edition, age, author, decoration, monetary value, historical significance, and educational potential. Often value was obvious—a rare, highly decorative book by a significant author in good condition was very valuable. However, there were gems within the seemingly insignificant. I took an interest in books produced during war, particularly World War II. I looked for patterns and shifts in patterns. For example, cheaply produced children’s book series are a dime a dozen—sometimes literally—but if you look at the quality and narrative structures you will find cultural shifts. Take the Buddy Series, a string of children’s books that ran for 16 years. For the most part, the majority of the series has little value; however, there is much to be learned from the editions published around World War II. Paper quality dips significantly during the war, an effect of wartime rationing; furthermore, the typical narratives of light-hearted adventures designed to teach good morals shift to tales of can collecting for the war effort and reporting your suspicious neighbor in Buddy and the Victory Club. This gives a better understanding of American wartime mentality, and how it manifested in children’s media. After all, the children taught to report their neighbors by the book, Buddy and the Victory Club, in 1943, were the same ones who grew up to partake in the paranoia of the Cold War and the second Red Scare.

Cover of book "Buddy and the Victory Club"
Garis, Howard R. Buddy and the Victory Club or a Boy and a Salvage Campaign. Cupples & Leon Company: New York. 1943.
Image source: West Virginia and Regional History Center

A book’s value can be found not only in its content and material, but also in how it recontextualizes historical periods. You can deduce a lot from what was the cultural norm by examining popular books. It is important to factor in that authors popular during their time might not have survived the modern day. Take Gene Stratton Porter—an author who still has her following, but is not nearly as recognizable as American authors like Jack London or F. Scott Fitzgerald despite being their peer. There is much to praise Gene Stratton-Porter for; she was a conservation activist, a successful American businesswoman, and a bestselling author. At the same time, there is also much to be learned from the startlingly normalized racism against people of Japanese origins in her book Her Father’s Daughter published in 1921. The casualness of how Stratton-Porter’s characters, who are meant to be likable and relatable, discriminate against Japanese people is completely normal. To many, the Japanese Concentration camps of 1942-1946, seem like an unbelievable failure of American morality. However, when contextualized with the reading material that the previous generation grew up with, the camps seem more like an inevitable product of long-standing xenophobia (in addition to being an unbelievable failure of American morality).

Cover of book "Her Father's Daughter"
Stratton-Porter, Gene. Her Father’s Daughter. New York: Grosset and Dunlap. 1921.
Image Source: West Virginia and Regional History Center

Often, historical importance can be found not just in narrative content or material—sometimes it can be in the publishers’ catalogue, which are often found at the end of the story at the back of the book. An otherwise insignificant book can tell you a lot if it also includes the publishers’ catalogue of available books. Compile enough book catalogues, and you can track shifts in advertisements that reflect cultural changes. For example, prior to World War I and II, book catalogues advertised children books as a gender-neutral category—both boys and girls could enjoy books such as The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland.  However, as war took over media, book advertisements split into boy books and girl books. Book about war were in high demand, but seen as too violent for girls, and so they were specifically advertised to boys. True to Newton’s third law, girl books went in an opposite direction and focused on things like light-hearted countryside adventures.

By the end of my semester capstone, I had compiled a detailed twenty-page portfolio of my key finds. After learning to read books in a new way and finalizing my portfolio, I then had to transform that information into a real-world tool for education. This is commonly done via displays. As part of my capstone, I set up a library exhibit on war influenced books which was displayed in the WVU library. For my final capstone requirement, I gave a public presentation on what I had learned and the significance of my project and wrote a paper on my overall work.

After I had completed my course credit, I continued to work for Stewart into my junior year as a work-study student. My tasks shifted from an educational approach to a work approach, and in a way was much more simplified while also more complicated. I was no longer expected to produce a gradable project, but I also had to do more diverse work.

My first assignment taught me the importance of organization and job creation—as poor organization had created a summer job for me. A series of unfortunate developments had left important microfilms mixed in a sea of hundreds of other microfilms (please note, this organizational job was not done by WVU staff, but by an outside source). This was the first and last time I worked with the WVU depository—or the depo. The depo is a storage site. It has a small office, and a large warehouse with a towering celling filled with high shelves full of boxes; the highest of which required an aerial platform to reach. It was similar to what you might expect in a factory warehouse, only with better temperature and humidity control. With the aid of depository staff to assist me with heavy lifting, I sorted through dozens and dozens of heavy boxes of newspaper film. Although tedious, there are lessons in blunders and this work certainty taught me the importance of organization, being conscientious of how your work can impact others, and instilled a greater appreciation for the behind the scenes work of acquiring research material.

Exterior view of brick building with the sign "Libraries' Depository"

After that assignment, my work took a return to form as I came back to the Rare Book room to compile inventories of collections—including my largest inventory of 311 Lewis and Clark related items. I also took on the occasional bit of side work, like boxing books or applying clear Brodart book cover sleeves, used to preserve dust jackets, or scanning book covers.

My next big project would be creating a Shakespeare Inventory of Rare Book room books and cross-referencing my inventory against the WVU library database to oversee updates and check for errors. Over the years, WVU’s Rare Book room has compiled one of the most impressive collections of Shakespeare’s work and related content, including an incredibly rare set of Shakespeare’s folios. The time had come when Stewart needed this impressive collection to be inventoried and I set about it. 

Each item added to the Rare Book room was naturally recorded in the WVU Library catalog database; however, shifting books and understandable cataloging mistakes can cause discrepancies. And so, to make sure our database was accurate and up to date, I began to cross-reference all the physical copies of the Shakespeare books in the Rare Book room against all the Shakespeare books in the database. At times, locating books was like being on an Easter egg hunt as things like size and value could result in atypical shelving.  When I was near the end of my inventorying, I experienced a valuable but painful lesson in backing up information. A mishap resulted in my inventory being deleted and I had to restart. In the end, I created a thirty-page inventory with 183 items.

For a nice change of pace, I also got to work with art and ventured into the libraries central storage area to make an inventory of a collection of donated artworks.

Woman standing at vertical shelves containing artwork

In the midst of working on another large inventory, I had to stop due to the minor issue of graduation, no longer qualifying as a work-study student. That is where I thought my work with WVU and Stewart would end, when I was again called upon to tackle another collection. This time I was hired as a temporary librarian assistant and tasked with organizing a vulnerable collection.

Many issues can be the unfortunate bane of a bookkeeper’s existence. Books are more sensitive than people think, and if humidity and temperature cannot be properly regulated, books may suffer, making them vulnerable to a variety of issues that can cause deterioration such as increased brittleness, mold, and insects, that can invade and spread rapidly between tightly wedged books. Certain precautions, such as masks and gloves, are a must as exposure can lead you to developing a lower tolerance to these issues in addition to other ailments.

In this case, a recently donated collection had problems. Some books were still good, and some were not. Book material is a big factor. I was working with older cloth bound books and leather—paperbacks and a lot of newer books were unaffected. I quickly went about organizing the collection, relocating fragile books to separate shelves and sorting them according to their level of vulnerability. 

Unfortunately, another type of bio-hazardous spread impacted my work halfway through sorting. Covid-19 resulted in WVU closing the libraries, and with that I began a life of remote work.

Remote work was a strange change of pace from my hands-on work. I could not inventory what I could not see, and so I took the opportunity to educate myself on book history, book care, and other topics that had long interested me. I edited audio files, wrote blog posts, and did beta work for Stewart. Now, at the close of my temp assignment, I’m completing my final task—writing a reflection.

I’m very grateful to all the WVU library staff who aided me in my work, and especially grateful to Stewart Plein for providing me with the opportunity to return again and again.

How to Tell the Age of a Book

Posted by Jane Metters LaBarbara.
May 11th, 2020

Blog post by Jessica Kambara, LTAII/Rare Book Room assistant, WVRHC.

Historical events are not only recorded in the content of books. All parts of a book contain information, from the cover design to the paper to the damage sustained over time.  Book characteristics vary widely depending on the region and time period they were produced; things like war, national affluence, religious movements, and literacy rates all affect book making. Bibliography or bibliology is the study of books and a wide field of study, as such, it cannot be mastered in one day. However, this guide will break down some simple ways to tell the age of a book and serve as a basic introduction to the history of books.

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Celebrating Shakespeare and the First Folio

Posted by Jessica McMillen.
April 23rd, 2020

Blog post by Stewart Plein, Assistant Curator for WV Books & Printed Resources & Rare Book Librarian

O, how this spring of love resembleth
The uncertain glory of an April day,
Which now shows all the beauty of the sun,
And by and by a cloud takes all away.

This quote from Shakespeare’s play “The Two Gentlemen of Verona,” (Act I, Scene 3, lines 85-88), describes just what the poet T.S. Eliot was thinking when he described April as “the cruelest month.”  That may be true, but for lovers of Shakespeare, April is the month of his birth, and also his death.  Though the dates of Shakespeare’s birth and death cannot be established with any certainty, April 23 is considered the likely date for both events.  The only extant record that comes close to recording his birth date is a baptismal notice for April 26, 1564.  His passing is believed to have taken place on April 23, 1616.  It is entirely possible that the same date applies to both life events.

These lines are from his most famous work, the collected plays, titled Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies, published seven years after his death in 1623.  Known colloquially as the first folio, it is considered to be the most important work ever published in the English language.

Preface and title page image of the first folio: British Library

The first two pages of the folio contain a preface, on the left, and the title page with a portrait of Shakespeare, on the right.  The placement of these items is important, not just because they fulfil the placement of preface and title page that is standard in books, but because they connect so importantly to each other.

The preface, “To the Reader,” appears in the format of a poem written by Ben Jonson, a colleague of Shakespeare, and a well-known playwright, whose plays were the first to be printed “in folio.”  What does printing “in folio” actually mean?  The word “folio” simply refers to the size of the paper used.  A folio is printed on a large size paper.  This was very uncommon for the publication of plays, which were usually printed in a smaller size, called a quarto.  Jonson’s collected plays were the first to be printed “in folio,” and this had a huge influence on the publication of Shakespeare’s plays in the same size.

Ben Jonson’s preface “To the Reader”

                             To the Reader

This figure, that thou here sees put,
It was for gentle Shakespeare cut;
Wherein the graver had a strife
With nature, to outdo the life:
O, could he have but drawn his wit
As well in brass, as he has hit
His face, the print would then surpass
All, that was ever written in brass.
But, since he cannot, Reader look
Not on his picture, but his book.

We can see that the text of this preface, above, looks very different than today’s English.  The English language is in transition at this time.  Spelling and letterforms have yet to be standardized.  We see things here that we don’t recognize, such the “long s,” which looks like an “f” without the crossbar, the interchangeable use of letters “u” and “v,” and the ligature of the letters “ct,” to reinforce the sound they make when spoken.  These lines, the modern translation is on the right, have an important purpose, they describe the portrait of Shakespeare on the title page.  It is considered to be the only portrait of Shakespeare created during his lifetime.  It is an engraving by the artist, Martin Droeshout, who was known as a “graver,” taken from the word “engraver.”  The engraving is cut onto brass which was used for printing.  Since Shakespeare had been dead seven years, and many people did not know him, Jonson’s message and the portrait is important.  Yes, the portrait is good, but it can’t capture his wit, move on, read the book!

Shakespeare wrote his plays specifically for the King’s Men, a group of actors who performed exclusively at the Globe Theater.  Not only did he write the plays they performed but he acted in them as well.  It was this group of actors that brought the collected plays to the printers, William Jaggard and his son Isaac, to be published.  Without them, we would not know eighteen of Shakespeare’s plays, including my favorite, Macbeth. The Tempest, Twelfth Night, Measure for Measure, and Julius Caesar, among others, would be lost.  All of these plays would remain unknown to us without this book.

Names of the Principal Actors Catalogue image: British Library

The names of all the actors that appeared in the King’s Men is printed on the page on the left.  Shakespeare himself gets top billing.  John Hemmings and Henry Condell are the actors who led the charge to publish Shakespeare’s collected plays.  They are also responsible for organizing the plays under the categories of histories, comedies, and tragedies, as shown on the catalogue or contents page on the right.

In this blog post we’ve talked about Shakespeare, his actors, and his plays. We’ve talked about Ben Jonson and we’ve talked about the publication of the first folio – but we haven’t talked about why it’s called the “first” folio.  It is the first folio because it is the first publication of Shakespeare’s collected plays.  Interest in Shakespeare’s works continued long after the first collection sold out, leading to the publication of additional editions.  In all, there were four folios:  the first, published in 1623, the second, published in 1632, the third, published in 1664, and the fourth and final folio, published in 1685.  Of course, Shakespeare’s works continues to be published to this day. But the folios are the most important editions of his dramatic works.

This is the book that made Shakespeare what he is to us today.  West Virginia University’s West Virginia and Regional History Center rare books collections owns all four of Shakespeare’s folios, thanks the generous gift of Arthur Dayton’s Shakespeare collection, given by his wife, Ruth, in 1951.  Dayton, a WVU alumnus, was a passionate collector whose goal was to acquire all four of Shakespeare’s folios. These books are among the most prized in the rare books collection.  The folios are regularly made available to students and faculty for use in classes in the rare book room and these are some of the facts I share with students when they visit the rare book room.  Thanks to Mr. Dayton’s gift, Shakespeare’s folios have educated generations of students at WVU and will continue to do so for future generations.

Making of Shakespeare’s First Folio by Emma Smith

If you’d like to learn more about Shakespeare and the first folio, I highly recommend The Making of Shakespeare’s First Folio, by Emma Smith.  Smith’s book is written in a manner that informs scholars and interested readers alike.

Happy Birthday William Shakespeare!

Resources:

The Jemima Code: Three Centuries of African American Cookbooks

Posted by Jane Metters LaBarbara.
February 25th, 2020

Blog post by Stewart Plein, Assistant Curator for WV Books & Printed Resources & Rare Book Librarian

Book cover of The Jemima Code, featuring an African American woman chef

A new book on our shelves, The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks, by Toni Tipton-Martin, documents more than 150 black cookbooks published in America.  The cookbooks range from a rare 1827 house servant’s manual, the first book published by an African American in the trade, to modern classics by authors like Edna Lewis.  Each book is listed chronologically and illustrated with their covers.  Recipes are also included. According to the listing on Amazon, this book “offers important firsthand evidence that African Americans cooked creative masterpieces from meager provisions, educated young chefs, operated food businesses, and nourished the African American community through the long struggle for human rights.”

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A New Way of Looking at Thomas Jefferson’s Legal Dictionary

Posted by Jane Metters LaBarbara.
December 16th, 2019

By McKayla Herron, Graduate Assistant at the WVRHC

Working as a graduate assistant at the WV&RHC, I have been surrounded by amazing archival materials. This semester I had the opportunity to undertake an in-depth study of Thomas Jefferson’s Common Law Dictionary, one of the many treasures found in our Rare Book Collection, as part of my coursework for ARHS 412: Collections Care and Preservation of Material Objects. (This book was featured in a previous post by Rare Book Librarian Stewart Plein.) Utilizing a microscope to examine the book, I was able to learn more about the materials that comprise it and the techniques used to make it.

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Celebrating Shakespeare’s 455th Birthday on April 23

Posted by Jane Metters LaBarbara.
April 24th, 2019

Blog post by Stewart Plein, Assistant Curator for WV Books & Printed Resources & Rare Book Librarian

Portrait of William Shakespeare

Spring is here and what better way to celebrate William Shakespeare’s 455th birthday, than to look at the way he used flowers in his plays. 

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The Importance of a Good Cookbook

Posted by Jane Metters LaBarbara.
December 5th, 2018

Blog post by Stewart Plein, Assistant Curator for WV Books & Printed Resources & Rare Book Librarian

Recently the West Virginia and Regional History Center received the gift of hundreds of cookbooks that are part of the Lucinda Ebersole Collection.  Ms. Ebersole was bookstore co-owner, cookbook enthusiast, editor, and book collector. Her collection of cookbooks spans the late nineteenth century up to 2016.  The much beloved cookbook pictured here arrived as part of the larger Ebersole collection.

Beneath the hand sewn plaid cover is the Rumford Complete Cook Book printed in 1918.  Nearly every page is covered with handwritten recipes, cooking spills and splashes marking favorite recipes, clippings pasted on pages that completely cover the text and recipes attached by paperclips.

Yellow, blue, and red cookbook cover

Yellow, blue, and red cookbook cover Read the rest of this entry »

An Afternoon with Isaac Asimov: Talk and Exhibit

Posted by Jane Metters LaBarbara.
November 7th, 2018

Blog post by Stewart Plein, Assistant Curator for WV Books & Printed Resources & Rare Book Librarian

Wednesday, October 31, the Rare Book Room, part of the West Virginia and Regional History Center at the WVU Libraries, hosted an event to highlight one of our extraordinary collections: the works of Isaac Asimov.  This event was designed to recognize our extensive Asimov collection and to celebrate our donors.

The event included an exhibit, shown below, that was on display in the Downtown Campus Library Atrium, and a talk by Nebula award winning author Andy Duncan, Professor of Writing at Frostburg State University.

Student viewing Isaac Asimov materials in glass cases in the library atrium

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Out of this World! Isaac Asimov in the West Virginia University Rare Book Room

Posted by Jane Metters LaBarbara.
August 6th, 2018

Image of a planetarium and a starry, moon-filled sky

Blog post by Stewart Plein, Assistant Curator for WV Books & Printed Resources & Rare Book Librarian

Although Isaac Asimov, one of the greatest science fiction authors of all time, passed away in 1992, his work lives on in the West Virginia University Rare Book Room.  One of the most prolific science fiction authors of the twentieth century, Asimov made a huge impact on how we view the future.

Asimov was responsible for more than 500 authored and edited publications.  Among his most popular novels are the Foundation Trilogy, The Martian Way, and The Stars like Dust.  Books that were turned into movies include I, Robot, the Fantastic Voyage, and the Bicentennial Man.

Perhaps Asimov’s single most important work is the short story/novella, Nightfall, published in 1941.  This story is considered the best science fiction short story written prior to the 1965 establishment of the Nebula Awards, the organization responsible for recognizing the best in science fiction or fantasy published in the United States.  The Rare Book Room holds important copies of Nightfall in a variety of formats, including books and records.  Its popularity led the story to be adapted for radio, film, podcast, and vinyl.  Read the rest of this entry »